“Everything is changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born.”—W.B. Yeats
Over the previous week, our group took a five day journey into and around Northern Ireland, experiencing the island in new and powerful ways. We visited Derry, Bushmills, Slieve League, explored Donegal town, Sligo, Kellybegs and took a driving tour through the land known simply as ‘Yeats Country’. The sheer amount of history, beauty and culture that we saw gave us a new and profound respect for this battle worn country, reminding us of Ireland’s recently violent past. From the majestic power of Slieve League to the bloody innocence of Derry, our journey North was an invaluable experience.
In a country so shaped by the willpower of its people and the beauty of its land, it is small wonder that a poet as famous as William Butler Yeats would find his inspiration here. Known worldwide for his powerful writing and political involvement, W.B. Yeats has left a permanent mark on Irish history. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923 and as a member of the IRA, he saw first-hand some of the greatest changes in Ireland’s recent history—experiencing the 1922 independence of Ireland by becoming its Senator. He managed to maintain a balance between his poetry and his politics, his writing bringing both the passionate endurance of the Irish people while still listening to the serene beauty of the landscape he called home. Many of his most famous poems are about County Sligo, where our group took several hours to simply drive through the picturesque countryside. It is easy to see where Yeats found his inspiration.
Our study of Yeats did not end with touring his homeland, however. In fact, we began with the end—the first stop of our trip being the graveyard at Drumcliffe in County Sligo, which is known for being the final resting place of Yeats. Surrounded by the rugged terrain of this region, Drumcliffe bears a majestic serenity that slows the gears of progress. The church is shaded by massive oak trees, their sprawling limbs twisting into the chill, Irish air. Moss covered gravestones and vine bearing walls soften the stone surrounding Drumcliffe Abbey, the only sounds arising from flitting song birds and a quiet wind’s hollow breath.
While exploring the grounds, I discovered multiple references toward Yeats’ work—one of the newest sculptures to be added was inspired by Yeats’ ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’. It took me a while to find the poet’s grave, but once I did I was struck by the strangest feelings. I’ve read Yeats’ work for years and during the past month in Ireland, we have discussed his influence multiple times. So to stand near his final resting place filled me with a sudden appreciation for human mortality and writing’s immortality. W.B. Yeats has not taken a breath since January 28th, 1939 and yet still he speaks, filling the world with the voice of the past and the prophecy of the future.